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Dealing with Competence Issues

By Pat Phillips

Engaging every student in computer science is a goal we all share. We label it diversity and know it is critical to a balanced industry and a competitive country. We've all struggled with encouraging students to try our courses through elaborate promotions, active recruitment, and stealth strategies of one kind or another.

A recurring theme of student reluctance for "signing up" is that many students don't think they would be good at CS; they lack self-confidence to try something new and out of their realm of experience in spite of the fact that they are exceedingly good with many types of technology. This has been particularly noted coming from girls and other underrepresented groups, exactly the ones we are trying most desperately to attract.

I ran across an interesting entry in the Geek Feminist Blog on just this topic. The premise of the blog entry is that it takes an over abundance of self-confidence to succeed in STEM fields. The rationale is that the road to success is paved with many mislabeled experiences which students call "failures;" in reality these "failures" are the necessary steps of testing solutions and successfully solving problems. Such experiences are transformed in our brains from "necessary steps toward success that show we are competent" to "proof that we are incompetent." I think many students are highly susceptible to this thought conversion, especially those who have faced real failures, discouragement, and other de-valuing intellectual experiences. And not surprisingly, these are the very student groups we work to recruit.

So what is the solution? I think that all students should know a bit about self-confidence itself to better moderate their self-talk, to more clearly recognize their strengths, and most importantly, to foster their own sense of self-worth. I propose that knowing about the way our mind works and having skills to set the stage for our own success are critical in overcoming the reluctance of many would-be great computer scientists.

* Recognize the imposter syndrome as a common feeling. Many people feel like they're not qualified to do what they are doing; they feel like imposters and fear they will be found out.
* Be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their skills and those who are highly competent will under-rate their expertise.
* Build a classroom of cheerleaders. Surrounding students with individuals who support and encourage their hard work is critical for classroom success and a happy classroom. Finding our own cheerleaders is happy-life skill for everyone.
* Enable and encourage students to celebrate their successes. Tooting their own horn about accomplishments and milestones builds self-confidence and breaks up the negative mind games.
* Give everyone permission to be awesome. Working hard to do awesome stuff displaces low self-esteem; displaced low self-esteem allows awesome accomplishments; awesome accomplishments build self-confidence. And so it goes.

Let me know what you think. How have you encouraged self-confidence in your students and taught them to battle the demons that cause us to minimize our skills and talents? Tell us your stories.

Pat Phillips


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